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Liberal Unionist Party: Wikis


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The Liberal Unionists were a British political party that split away from the Liberals in 1886. Led by Lord Hartington (later the Duke of Devonshire) and Joseph Chamberlain, the party formed a political alliance with the Conservatives in opposition to Irish Home Rule. The two parties formed a coalition government in 1895 but kept separate political funds and their own party organisations until a complete merger was agreed in May 1912.



The Liberal Unionists owe their origins to the conversion of William Ewart Gladstone to the cause of Irish Home Rule (i.e. self government for Ireland). The 1885 General Election had left Charles Stewart Parnell's Irish Nationalists holding the balance of power, and had convinced Gladstone that the Irish wanted and deserved Home Rule. Some Liberals believed that Gladstone's Home Rule bill would lead to de facto independence for Ireland, and the dissolution of the United Kingdom, which they could not countenance. Seeing themselves as defenders of the Union of Britain and Ireland, they called themselves 'Liberal Unionists' (or alternatively 'Liberal-Unionist') though at this stage most of them did not think it was going to be a permanent split from their former colleagues. Indeed Gladstone preferred to call them 'dissident Liberals' as if he believed they would eventually come back like the 'Adullamites' - Liberals who had opposed the extension of the franchise in 1866 but had mostly come back to the main party after the Conservatives had passed their own electoral reform bill in 1867.

The majority of Liberal Unionists were drawn from the Whig faction of the party, including Hartington, Lord Lansdowne, and George Goschen, and had been expected to split from the Liberal Party anyway, for reasons connected with economic and social policy. Also relevant in their pro-unionism was their extensive landed estates in Ireland and the fear that these would be broken up or confiscated if Ireland had its own parliament. Hartington's brother had also been murdered by Irish Nationalists in the 1882 Phoenix Park Murders.

The anti-Home rule Liberals formed the 'Committee for the Preservation of the Union' in early 1886 and were soon joined by a smaller radical faction led by Joseph Chamberlain and John Bright. Chamberlain had briefly taken office in the Gladstone government and only resigned from it once he had seen the details of Gladstone's Home Rule plans. As Chamberlain had previously been a standard bearer of radical liberalism against the Whigs, his adherence to the alliance against the Gladstonian Liberals came then as a big surprise. When the dissident Liberals eventually formed the Liberal Unionist Council which was to become the Liberal Unionist party, Chamberlain organised the separate National Radical Union in Birmingham. This allowed Chamberlain and his immediate allies some initial political distance from the main body of Liberal Unionism (and also their Conservative allies) and also the possibility that they could also work with the Liberal party in the future.

Ironically one person who could have joined the 'National Radical Union' at this stage was David Lloyd George (later Prime Minister) who was then a keen supporter of Chamberlain's social agenda. Lloyd George had been due to go to the first meeting of the National Radical Union in Birmingham but got his dates mixed up and arrived on the wrong day. Many years later Lloyd George was to go to Birmingham once more but in 1901 as a fierce critic of Chamberlain and the Boer War. In 1889 the National Radical Union changed its name to the National Liberal Union and remained a separate organisation from the main Liberal Unionist Council.

Breaking away from 'Gladstonian' Liberalism

The 1886 election left the Conservative Party as the largest party in the House of Commons, but without an overall majority. The leading Liberal Unionists were invited to join the Conservative Lord Salisbury's government. Salisbury said he was even willing to let Hartington become Prime Minister of a coalition ministry but the latter declined. In part, Hartington was worried this would split the Liberal Unionists and lose them votes from pro-Unionist Liberal supporters. The Liberal Unionists, despite providing the necessary margin for Salisbury's majority, continued to sit on the opposition benches throughout the life of the parliament elected in 1886, and Hartington and Chamberlain continued to occupy the opposition front benches alongside their former colleagues Gladstone and Harcourt.

However, a few months later Goschen, by far the most conservative of the leading Liberal Unionists, received an invitation to become the new Chancellor of the Exchequer in the place of Lord Randolph Churchill when the latter suddenly resigned in December 1886. After consulting Hartington, Goschen agreed to join the Conservative government and remained Chancellor for the next six years.

The round table conference

Whilst the Whiggish wing of the Liberal Unionists were informally cooperating with the Conservative Government (and supplying them with a cabinet minister), the party's Radical Unionist wing sat down for a series of meetings with their former Liberal colleagues. Lead by Joseph Chamberlain and Sir George Otto Trevelyan the 'Round Table Conference' was a perhaps half hearted attempt to see if reunion of the Liberal party was possible. Despite some progress (and Chamberlain's statement that they were united on ninety-nine out of a hundred issues regarding the future of Liberalism), the problem of Home Rule for Ireland could not be reconciled. Neither Hartington or Gladstone took direct part in these meetings - and there seemed to be no other Liberal statesman who would be able to reunite the party. Within a few months the talks were over, though some Radical Unionists including Trevelyan later rejoined the Liberal Party.

Moving towards a Unionist coalition

The failed talks of 1887 forced the Liberal Unionist party to continue to develop its links with the Conservatives. In Parliament, they supported the Salisbury administration - though for political presentation reasons, they sat on the opposite side of House of Commons with the Liberal Party. Relations between former political colleagues hardened with the return of Gladstone as Prime Minister following the 1892 General Election. Forming a minority government with Irish Nationalist support, the Liberals introduced the second Home Rule bill. Leading the opposition against the bill were the Duke of Devonshire (as Hartington had become in 1891 following the death of his father) and Joseph Chamberlain. The Home Rule bill was defeated this time in the House of Lords and Gladstone resigned not long after.

By now all chance of a reunion between the two Liberal parties had long disappeared, and it was no great surprise when leading Liberal Unionists joined Salisbury's administration in 1895. The resulting government was generally referred to as "Unionist", and the distinction between Conservatives and Liberal Unionists began to dissolve.

A few Liberal Unionists like Goschen formally joined the Conservatives and in the House of Lords where the Whig Unionists remained in considerable strength, they provided the leadership in that upper chamber for both parties after 1902. However, despite these ever-closer political bonds, the Liberal Unionists continued to maintain a separate identity and raise their own funds. The party's strength in the House of Commons fell from 78 seats in 1886 to 47 in 1892 but recovered to 71 and then 68 in the General Elections of 1895 and 1900. They managed to stay strong in the South West of England, West Midlands (the centre of Joseph Chamberlain's power base) and especially in Scotland where the Liberal Unionists were initially the more dominant group in their alliance with the Scottish Conservatives.

Split over free trade

From the very start, the Liberal Unionists always had an underlying tension between the 'moderate' Whigs like Devonshire and the more radical Chamberlainite wing. They agreed only in their opposition to Home Rule; there was little else that united the party's members, and it isn't surprising that a separate Liberal Unionist identity was harder to define in the politics of the late 1890s. Weak local party associations were encouraged to merge with their Conservative allies though Devonshire's wish to merge fully was rejected by Chamberlain.

Despite these tensions, the Liberal Unionists more or less managed to stay together until 1903, when in a surprise move, Chamberlain dramatically launched Tariff Reform with a speech in his Birmingham political homeland. This departure from free trade caused immediate problems within the Unionist alliance, but especially with the Devonshire section of the Liberal Unionists. Rejecting Tariff Reform, Devonshire and other supporters of free trade left the Liberal Unionist Association in 1904 in protest. Chamberlain took over the party's leadership, but this didn't stop a large number of disgruntled Liberal Unionists, including a few MPs, migrating back to the Liberal party. As for Devonshire and his allies, they put their political efforts into the Free Food League which included a sizeable minority of Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) (and, for a few months, Conservative MP Winston Churchill before he too defected to the Liberals in 1904). Most of them eventually left the party , Devonshire ended his political career estranged from both main parties and sat in the House of Lords as a Crossbencher.

In the 1906 General Election, the Liberal Unionists (both Free Traders and Tariff reformers) shared the same fate as their Conservative allies with a big reduction in their parliamentary strength. They now numbered only 23 MPs (or 25 according to other calculations) in a combined Unionist alliance of just 157 in the new House of Commons - though in Birmingham the Liberal Unionist and Conservatives were triumphant.

With a few exceptions, the remaining Liberal Unionists were now firm supporters of tariffs, as were now the majority of the Conservative MPs. Indeed, for a short period in early 1906 Chamberlain was also the de facto leader of the Unionist alliance in the House of Commons, since the Conservative party leader and former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour had lost his seat in the election (though before long he managed to return to parliament in a conveniently arranged by-election).

It is possible that at this stage Chamberlain could have become leader of all the surviving Unionists (at least all those in favour of Tariff Reform) and forced Balfour to resign. However, even protectionist Tories were reluctant to chose Chamberlain as their leader, but the the choice was taken away when in July 1906 Chamberlain suffered a stroke which left him physically crippled, though he remained politically involved until his death in 1914. Chamberlain remained the leader of the Liberal Unionists, though in effect his son Austen Chamberlain acted on his behalf in both the party and the Tariff Reform League.

The still politically estranged Devonshire died in 1908, but remarkably — despite the removal of the party's most famous standard bearers — the Liberal Unionists were still able to increase their parliamentary representation in the two 1910 General Elections to 32 and then 36 MPs.

Towards a formal merger

The issue of Tariff Reform had now became overshadowed by the revived threat of Home Rule for Ireland, as the Parliament Act 1911 stripped the House of Lords of their ability to in effect veto it. This encouraged a movement to formally merge the two parties at constituency and national organizational level — a move encouraged with the election of Andrew Bonar Law as new Conservative party leader in 1911. It had already happened to some extent in Ireland with the Irish Unionist Party and the separately organized Ulster Unionist Council in 1905 (later to become the Ulster Unionist Party). Except in places like Birmingham and Scotland - many local Liberal Unionists and Conservatives had already formed joint constituency parties in the previous decade.

In May 1912 the formal merger of the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists was finally accomplished to form the Conservative and Unionist Party (the modern Conservative Party). Although by then the political distinction between the two parties had long ceased to have any real meaning, it had been an important factor in Austen Chamberlain's failure to become the Unionist leader in the House of Commons in 1911. When Arthur Balfour resigned, Austen Chamberlain and Walter Hume Long both declared themselves as candidates for the leadership of the Unionist Party in the House of Commons. However, as Austen Chamberlain was still officially at least a Liberal Unionist, his candidature was opposed by many Conservatives because they already had the Liberal Unionist Lord Lansdowne leading them in the House of Lords. In the end Andrew Bonar Law was elected unopposed by Unionist MPs instead and Austen Chamberlain would have to wait ten years for his chance to lead the party.

The political legacy of Liberal Unionism

The political impact of the Liberal Unionist breakaway marked the end of the long nineteenth century domination by the Liberal party of the British political scene. From 1830 to 1886 the Liberals (the name the Whigs, Radicals and Peelites accepted as their political label after 1859) had been managed to become almost the party of permanent government with just a couple of Conservative interludes. After 1886 it was the Conservatives who enjoyed this position and they received a huge boost with their alliance with a party of disaffected Liberals.

Though not numerous, the Liberal Unionists boasted having within their ranks the vast bulk of the old Whig aristocracy as represented by the stolid Duke of Devonshire. His political partner, the 'radical imperialist' Joseph Chamberlain, someone who was arguably the first true full time politician who had got to the front rank of British politics by his own efforts rather than depending on patronage or a hereditary title. If he had not been disabled by a stroke in 1906, Chamberlain could have re-cast the political scene again with a more 'radical' Conservative party.

Though the Liberal Unionist party disappeared as a separate organisation in 1912 - the Chamberlain legacy helped keep the industrial powerhouse of Birmingham from returning to the Liberal party and would only be changed once more in 1945 in the Labour Party electoral landslide of that year. It also remained a profound influence on Chamberlain's sons Austen and Neville Chamberlain, who, when he was elected leader of the Conservative Party and thus became Prime Minister in 1937 - told an audience how proud he was of his Liberal Unionist roots. This isn't surprising. Neither Neville or Austen actually stood for Parliament as a Conservative candidate, - their local political association in Birmingham preferred to call themselves Unionist rather than Conservative during this time and it also privately suited Neville Chamberlain as well. He confided to his own family how he always regarded the Conservative party label as 'odious' and thought of it a barrier to people joining what he thought could be a non-socialist but a reforming party during the 1930s which he hoped would be called 'National' to include the parties of the National Government coalition in the 1930s.

Leaders of the Liberal Unionists in the House of Commons, 1886-1912

Leaders of the Liberal Unionists in the House of Lords, 1886-1912

Prominent Liberal Unionists

The journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley served one term as the Liberal Unionist MP for Lambeth North between 1895 and 1900.

The writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stood unsuccessfully twice as a Liberal Unionist parliamentary candidate in 1900 and 1906 for the Scottish seats of Edinburgh Central and Hawick Boroughs respectively. Also standing in 1906 as a Liberal Unionist was the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton for one of the two member Dundee seats. Despite his fame - Shackleton lost.

Leo Amery who is best known for his later career as a senior Conservative politician and British Cabinet minister was originally elected as a Liberal Unionist MP for Birmingham South in 1911 in a by-election - mainly because he was a strong supporter of Joseph Chamberlain and Tariff Reform.

In popular culture and the media

In Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest there is an exchange between Jack Worthing and Lady Bracknell about his suitability as a match for her daughter Gwendolen.

LADY BRACKNELL : [Sternly]... What are your politics?
JACK: Well, I am afraid I really have none. I am a Liberal Unionist.
LADY BRACKNELL: Oh, they count as Tories. They dine with us.

The play was first performed at the Queen's Theatre London on 14 February 1895 and ran for 83 performances. Jack Worthing's declaration that he was in essence apolitical but - if pressed - would say Liberal Unionist was a joke that would have appealed to the audiences that saw the play in that period. As a party that depended on an electoral pact with the Tories to maintain their MPs in parliament, the Liberal Unionists had to at least appear to be also 'Liberal' in matters not connected with Home Rule including some measures of promoting reform. To someone like Jack, the Liberal Unionists attempts to be two things at the same time but in different places would have appealed with his double identity ('Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country', he says in act 1).

Since 1895 the then topical 'Liberal Unionist' reference has caused some problems with later productions of the play. Usually the line is retained - despite its reference to a long dead political issue (and also party) but it was certainly changed or altered in at least two film versions of the play.

In 1952 film version directed by Anthony Asquith (the son of a former British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith) Jack answers that he is a 'Liberal' rather than 'Liberal Unionist'. Lady Bracknell's answer remains the same - strangely suggesting the Liberals are virtually identical with the Tories except she won't have them round for lunch. This is an ironical re-reading of the passage which suggests Lady Bracknell agreed with the Marxist Social Democratic Federation and their leader Henry Hyndman who thought the same about the two main British parties then. However, in 1952 this comment was oddly true about the then Liberal party whose continued political representation in parliament was largely due to the Conservative party avoid splitting the 'anti-socialist' vote. So perhaps Asquith was making a political point for the 1950s.

Since then - other adaptations of the play for TV or theatre have usually left this brief mention of a largely forgotten political party intact. However in the 2002 film version which starred Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Rupert Everett and Reese Witherspoon - the lines were dropped even though this film re-incorporated episodes and characters in an earlier version of the play that Wilde had been encouraged to drop before the play's first performance.


  • British Parliamentary Election Results 1885-1918, compiled and edited by F.W.S. Craig (Macmillan Press 1974)
  • The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher by Robert Blake (Fontana 1985)
  • Joseph Chamberlain: Entrepreneur in Politics by Peter.T.Marsh (Yale University Press 1994)
  • Country Before Party: Coalition and the Idea of 'National Government' in Modern Britain by G.R. Searle. (Studies in Modern History. Longman 1995)
  • The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain by J Parry (Yale University Press; New Ed edition 1996)

See also

External links



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